Bryce Edwards: The State of the political left (in the Age of Outrage)

Bryce Edwards: The State of the political left (in the Age of Outrage)

What role has the political left played in helping create some of the changes to the current way politics is debated? Below is a short five-minute speech I contributed to a panel discussion at an event hosted last week by Diplosphere, entitled: “Living in the Age of Outrage”. The questions posed for speakers at the event included the following: “• Has political correctness gone too far? Where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and discrimination? In an age of extremes, where is middle ground gone? Can we listen to the other side?”


We live in incredible times, and the subject of our discussion tonight is a huge one with many aspects to explore. One crucial element in understanding where we currently are at is to comprehend how the “political left” has evolved in recent decades.

To start with it’s worth thinking about what we mean by “the political left”. When I talk to my students, I’m always interested to hear what “leftwing” and “rightwing” means to them. Here’s some of the words and phrases that I get repeated back to me as being leftwing: anti-racism, diversity, gender, censorship, cancel culture, boycotts, LGTBQ+ rights, political correctness, identity politics, environment and peace.

It’s interesting that their definitions of leftwing are quite different to traditional ones. They don’t talk so much about working class, economic inequality, poverty, trade unions, collective struggle, universalism, etc.

I think this illustrates how the political left has indeed evolved over recent decades. The leftwing parties, activists and politicians are now quite different to what they were for most of the twentieth century.

A short version of what has happened on the left is the following:

From the 1970s and 1980s, the forces of the political left – especially the political parties – transformed into more middle class vehicles. The highly educated took over the NZ Labour Party as members, activists and MPs. And unions declined as a social force.

The left also started to lose the debates on economics, everywhere. In NZ this meant the introduction of neoliberal economic reforms, in our case by the Fourth Labour Government.

Those on the left generally gave up on economics, and chose to focus from this time more on non-economic issues: social issues, foreign policy, post-materialism, and what is often called the “culture wars” – involving personal morality and behaviour. Hence, since then the left has become more associated with cultural issues, gender, ethnicity. They don’t focus so much on class anymore or talk so much about the issues that they’re interested in.

In a sense, the left has swung from one extreme in the 20th century, whereby everything was about economics and class (and other important issues around gender and ethnicity were not given their due focus) to one where the focus is mostly on non-economic issues.

In a sense you could say that the “political right” won the “economic debates” of the 1980s and onwards – setting up an economy that we’ve still got, that is structured in favour of wealth, business and elites. Meanwhile, the “political left” have won the “social debates”, largely setting the agenda on issues of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture.

The modern version of the left – what some might call the “woke left”, the “liberal left” or the “middle class left” – clearly has some very different ways of pursuing political change. Largely it’s an elite top-down model of politics, reflective of the left being made up of the highly-educated stratum of society. They confidently believe that they know best.

This leftwing elite approach is very compatible with a more censorious approach to politics. Whereas the traditional left has been the force in society that is most favourable to “free speech” and towards mass participation in politics, it’s now quite the opposite. Traditionally it was forces of the right and the Establishment that clamped down on political expression and activity. Historically, the left has championed the rights of the oppressed or marginalised to organise, to communicate politics, in order to win human rights and political gains. And this is why it’s somewhat surprising that increasingly the left want either the state or society to put limits on political debate and expression.

The rise of “culture wars” has been incredibly important for the political atmosphere that we are now in. Quite simply it doesn’t lend itself to debate and discussion, or finding middle ground. Instead, it’s more polarising – it lends itself to the labelling of opponents as racists, sexists, or in the case of Hilary Clinton, talking about the masses as “deplorables”. So, there’s a strong strain of sneering from many on the left – especially against those that are seen as socially backward. The old slogan of: “The personal is political” now underpins the focus on how to fix the problems of the world.

The logical consequence for many on the left is take an approach of “language policing” and concern for “cultural etiquette” in an almost Victorian way. Again this is rather topsy-turvy – as it used to be conservative or rightwing side of politics that was concerned with policing people’s behaviour, and looking down on the less educated and enlightened.

The contemporary left also has a newfound mistrust in the ability of society to make the right decisions or to understand the world. In an elitist way, many on the progressive side of politics view the public as being too uneducated or lacking enlightenment. Hence, the view of gender or ethnic inequality or oppressions is often understood as something to do with personal behaviour and “bad ideas” (racism, sexism, homophobia) – rather than in a structural sense (as the left used to see these things).

In this climate it’s not surprising therefore that there is now much heightened sensitivity about “misinformation” – with this idea that the public are easily led.

Of course, the misinformation issue is an important one that we should take seriously. But sometimes there is too much emphasis in the debate on the almost-conspiratorial idea that disinformation is coming from foreign, rogue sources like Russian internet bots etc. What’s often missing from the debate is a concentration on the propaganda and lies originating from government departments, politicians and the Beehive. What needs more focus is the fact that New Zealand now has many more public relations practitioners than journalists.

In conclusion, I think when the political left swings back towards class politics and mass participation, away from its overly-obsessed orientation to “culture wars”, we are likely to see a very different type of political debate and landscape – and one that is more democratically healthy and progressive.